Fencing In America

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Fencing In America




First in a two-part series on fencing in America, from it's early days up to the date of publication. Includes details on notable schools, clubs, instructors and fencers as well as the Amateur Fencers League of America, the difficulties of judging bouts, and collegiate competition.


Edward Breck


Fencing in America, The Outing Magazine, December 1912.


Outing Publishing Co.


December 1912


© Fencing Arms & Artifacts


17 x 25 cm (nine leaves separated from the original magazine)







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Illustrated with Photographs
Fencing is indeed the knightliest of sports, for it is the art of using the knight's own weapon, the sword. But its appeal to the modern business man need not be sentimental only ; for it offers an ideal exercise during the cold months to the man who cannot get out of town to indulge regularly in some open-air sport. It is marvelous in what condition an hour or more of fencing, including a stiff lesson, will keep even a hard-worked habitue of the desk.

Furthermore, it is a game of fascination, for in no other pastime is the interest so close, so intense or so concentrated as in fencing, and in no other is the expenditure of muscular exertion and headwork so nicely proportioned. You are here in actual touch with your opponent, the delicate rod of steel in your grasp is a lightning conductor that instantaneously flashes through your brain the knowledge of what attack your adversary is meditating. Every faculty of your brain, every muscle of your body, every nerve of eye and hand, all are on the alert; and you live more intensely, more vividly in an assault of a quarter of an hour than most people do in a week.

There has always been a much mis-taken idea abroad that fencing is a too light kind of exercise. This is absurd, as every fencer knows, for any exercise that bathes its devotees in sweat, and tires them out if overzealous, cannot be too light. If we add to this great advantage the facts that no game so nicely trains the judgment and the eye or gives the body such suppleness, grace and ease of movement, and that it is as well of absorbing interest, v e may surely claim with justice that fencing is the ideal in-door winter exercise.

Though there were important schools of fence in middle Europe during the Middle Ages, modern fencing is founded on the old sword-play of Spain, introduced into France by visitors from that country, and into Italy through the conquest of Sicily by the Spanish Bourbons. In Italy and France, therefore, grew up the two great modern schools of the foil, which twenty years ago diverged more widely than at present, since the more frequent opportunities for devotees of each to- come together have resulted in each adopting some of the good points of the other, or at least in modifying the traditional methods.

The French foil is lighter than the Italian and is held more lightly, that is, with a free grip, while the Italian foil has a solid bell-guard and a cross-piece round which the fingers are tightly clenched, making the light finger-play (doigte) of the French method much more difficult. For example, when attacking, the Frenchman by holding his foil near the end of the handle, or even by the very pummel, gains an important inch or two in length of lunge, while in parrying his fingers grasp the handle right next the guard, thus getting the best leverage for quick movements of the point. The Italian foil permits of but one position.

It is greatly to be regretted that the Olympic Committee in Stockholm ruled that the hand might not be placed farther from the guard than three centimeters, a regulation that not only destroys the advantage of the more logical French handle but operates greatly to the disadvantage of fencers of short stature.

The Italian weapon has not advanced so far from its ancestor, the old Spanish rapier, as the French foil, and one may say the same of the two methods of manipulating it, for though the Italians are fine athletes and excellent swordsmen, it is the opinion of most unprejudiced judges that the French school of foil is the better, being more graceful, direct and logical.

It is a significant fact that during the nineteenth century fencing flourished only in those countries where duelling was customary, for example, in France with the rapier, in Italy with rapier and sabre, in Germany and Austria with sabre and schlaeger and in England, to a less degree, with the rapier. As duelling with small-swords became practically obsolete in England and America early in the last century it is not astonishing that fencing was practiced in the English-speaking world only by a few aristocratic amateurs, not in private clubs, but in the salles d'armes of professional masters, nearly all of foreign birth.

In earlier days there was a fine school of broadsword, or backsword, in England, the teachers of which were the original "prize-fighters," and great was the hue and cry when, toward the beginning of the seventeenth century, the foreign "poking fight of rapier and dagger" was introduced. "Then a tall man and a good sword-and-buckler man will be spitted like a cat or a rabbit," complains a blood of the period. But the opposition was vain, and the prize-fighter eventually gave the sword for the bare fist, though for a long time afterward (and even today in some remote districts of England) single-stick play, or cudgelling, which is the direct descendant of the olden backswording, caused broken heads among the rural population. Readers of "Tom Brown" will remember the game well.

Until some twenty or thirty years ago fencing was practiced by very few in England, the London Fencing Club being the most important institution for the furtherance of the art. At present there are a dozen or more first-class clubs which devote themselves entirely to fencing, with the social element of less importance, most of these organizations being mere incorporations of salles-d'armes presided over by professionals, nearly all continental, though English masters, French bred, have begun to come to the front like the McPhersons. In Paris there are some two hundred fencing-schools and clubs!

Interest in fencing has enormously increased in Great Britain since the introduction there of French duelling-sword play (epee de combat) in the yeas 1900. This sport gave the British many opportunities to fence against their French, Dutch and Belgian neighbors, with the result that ' • British epee teams have lately divided the laurels fairly with their continental rivals, though the French are still at the head owing to the great and universal interest taken in fencing in their country. In both England and France the sport, as exemplified by the chosen international teams, is aristocratic in its tendencies, the "Old Blue" university element giving the tone in London, while in Paris the military - journalistic combination may be said to rule.

Abroad, practically all international competitions nowadays are fought out with the epee, though there are tournament events for the light sabre, and occasionally for the foil; but this last weapon is reserved mostly for practice and for exhibitions or assaults of skill without counting hits, and this is as it should be.

Passing westward across the ocean, we find very little fencing done before the last quarter of the last century, for the very good reason that there were almost no good masters to arouse interest in and teach it. Officers of the army and navy indulged in fencing occasionally, especially in colonial days, but the art was as good as non-existent. As early as 1754 John Rievers advertised to teach fencing and dancing in New York at the corner of Whitehall and Stone streets, and his successor, W. C. Hulett, taught the same branches of polite education, adding instruction in violin and flute. It is evident that he was not overrun with fencing pupils. Then , there was Monsieur Villette in 1783. In New Orleans, perhaps owing to old French traditions, more fencing was done than in any other part of the country, and in the early nineteenth century the Rossieres, father and son, were popular teachers.

But it was in New York that the final recrudescence of fencing took place, and its beginnings are intimately bound up with one of those exoduses to our country that have invariably enriched the • blood of the body politic with an elevated and virile element. The fencing section of the New York Turn-Verein was founded in 1850 by members of that club who had participated in the German revolutionary movement of 1848. Its first fencing-master was no less a personage than Franz Sigel, afterward the idolized German-American Civil War leader.

Not to dwell too long upon dry history, we may dismiss it with the mention of the chief worthies headed by Sword-Master Corbesier, of the Naval Academy, a Belgian officer, who has taught in this country since 1862, and is thus the doyen of the teaching corps. Senac the elder, who came to New York in 1874, was the first master of the New York Athletic Club, and, with his son Louis, has been teaching there ever since. Soon after came Captain Nicolas, the first master of the famous Fencers' Club, which was founded in 1883 by the Hon. C. de Kay and other prominent New York gentlemen, and which, with the New York Athletic Club, still dominates fencing in the East.

Of French masters who have taught, or are still teaching in America, we may mention Rondelle (Boston Athletic Association), Gouspy, of the Racquet and Tennis Club, and now of the N. Y. A. C.; Gelas the elder (Boston), Tony Gelas (Boston), Jean Gelas (Cornell), Brun-Buisson (Fencers' Club), and Danguy, now at the Fencers' Club. All these masters studied at the great French military fencing-school at Joinville-le-Pont. L. Vauthier, long at the Fencers' Club, but now head of the fencing department at West Point, and Seslabay (Boston A. C.) are graduates of the Paris Academy of Fencing.

Other French masters are Jacoby, now dead ; Gignac, Bonnafous, Fournon, the late M. Tronchet, de Beauviere and the veteran assistant at the Fencers' Club, Capdevielle. Of Italians there have been Castaldi and Piacenti, of Boston ; L. Terrone, of Philadelphia, and others. The German turners have furnished us with Heintz the elder and his son, Captain Koehler of West Point, Koch of the N. Y. A. C. and the Turn-Verein, and other good men in the West. Of Americans we may mention R. Malchien (not now active) , J. Murray of the N. Y. A. C., and his assistant, Miller, G. W. Postgate, and E. M anrique, the donor of the Manrique Cup.

One disadvantage of fencing in this county lies at the door of the teaching corps, which has steadily refused to organize. The first proposal to do so was made by Professor Corbesier in 1894 and another attempt in the same sane direction was started but a short time ago. But your French fencing-master with a diploma is prouder than a hidalgo of the most ancient lineage. Those educated at the great French army fencing-school at Joinville look down upon all others and often even refuse to cross blades with them. The French and Italian masters regard each other with jealousy and some contempt, or they used to, and the result of it all has been and still is that American fencers practically never enjoy the great pleasure and advantage of witnessing encounters between good professionals, which are regular features of the season as a rule in Paris, London or Brussels.

If the masters had got together at Corbesier's first suggestion, we might by this time have an academy holding jurisdiction over all matters of professional interest, such as professional tournaments and the training of pupils as future masters, their promotion to the rank of prevot, or assistant-master, and eventually master. As it is, but one American master of note is now on the strip, and he, Murray, had to go to Paris for his training. A direct result of the lack of professional bouts is that the masters become stale, on account of never fencing against men of their own caliber. This was easily seen when in former years matadors of the first r an k, trained to the hour in constant competitions, visited this country, as Pini, Greco, and the younger Merignac.

Fencing in America is regulated by the Amateur Fencers' League of America, which is in alliance with the Amateur Athletic Union. It was organized in May, 1891, by members of the various athletic clubs of the metropolis, with Dr G. M. Hammond is.president and Mr. W. Scott O'Connor- as secretary-treasurer. It is sufficient comment upon the accomplishments of these two gentlemen to say that they have as yet had no successors and are both still active on the fencing-strip. The famous "rain of coupees" of Dr. Hammond, the • "G.O.M." of American fencing, is a classic of our shores, while Mr. O'Connor can "come back" at any moment with either foil or duelling-sword.

The development of the League has been steady, resulting in the formation of branch divisions as the New England (1892), the Long Island (Brooklyn), Eastern Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), Western Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh), Maryland, Michigan and Illinois. The national championships take place every spring in New York, delegates from the various divisions competing who have qualified in preliminary contests. Gold, silver and bronze medals are given for foil, duelling-sword (epee), and sabre, the champions, of course, winning the gold. For some years a contest in single-stick was held, but as the bouts more nearly resembled a free fight at Donnybrook Fair than a fencing mated, the weapon was suppressed in the interest of decency and aesthetics!

The spread of fencing has been increased by the founding of such clubs as the Philadelphia Fencers' Club, the Fenway Fencing Club of B cis t o np the Washington Fencers' Club and the several athletic clubs, as well as by the renewed interest shown in fencing at the many turn-vereins of the country; furthermore by the formation of the Intercollegiate Fencing Association, and the recent encouragement of the art in the public schools.

The question at once arises as to the quality of American fencing in the three weapons. Have we had any amateurs of the first rank, and is our quality improving according to European standards?

Offhand one may answer these questions affirmatively, always bearing in mind that we have one fencer where France has a hundred and England ten, and, furthermore, that abroad there is far more opportunity to fence and to see good fencing, especially by professionals. Since the existence of the A. F. L. A. a number of pretty good men have been turned out, but little opportunity has been given to compare them with the best men abroad. Mr. G. Kavanagh, trained entirely in France, was in the first flight in Paris and took the championship here. On the whole it would be impossible to select ten Americans who should at all hold their own with the French champions.

Possibly the late Fitzhugh Townsend (Columbia and Fencers' Club) was the best foil fencer that we have produced, taking form and tournament efficiency together. A few other men, such as Mr. S. Cabot, of Boston, are finer blades with light hands, splendid defense and varied attack, but Townsend added enough of the aggressive to his excellent style to make him very formidable in competition. He was that rare, bird, a combination of the tireur de tete and the tireur de tempetament, i.e., both brainy and athletic. Another of the same class and even more versatile is Mr. C. G. Bothner, still fencing at the New York Athletic Club. Including the year 1905 in national championship contests Mr. Bothner has won ten championship gold Medals, seven silver and nine bronze. In 1897 he won the championship in all three weapons, and on two other occasions two of the three. In his prime his foil work was excellent, his sabre fair, and the epee manipulation correct. He united absolute coolness and sound judgment with a light hand and a wrist of steel. Trained by the late Armand Jacoby, he belonged to the school of foil fencers who strive to follow, on the attack, the parry movements of the adversary, and his wonderful eye and quickness of movement enabled him to succeed in this system, so very difficult for the average man.

Mr. Bothner does not now confine himself to this manner, but is less an exponent of the attack planned carefully beforehand than some others, like Mr. Cabot, who thinks out nearly every primary attack, after studying the habitual parries of his opponent. Other fencers in the first class, now or formerly, are Messrs. Tatham, Van Zo Post, Hall, Breckenridge, J. T. Shaw, Honeycutt, Breed and Bowman, with such excellent blades as Messrs. O'Connor, Hammond, de Diaz, S. T. Shaw, Bainbridge, Lage, Curti, Anderson, Allaire, Denzenberg, Brownell, Heintz, Allen, Parker, McLaughlin, Bliss and others sharing their honors.

Fencing in America has been over-legislated. The American rules for the epee are fairly simple, those for foil complicated, while the sabre regulations are so fearful and wonderful that even their authors surely cannot interpret them. The reason for all these intricate rules lies in the attempt on the part of the lawmakers to discourage bad fencing. In foil, for example, the most disgusting object is the man who hurls himself upon his adversary, striving apparently by main force to plant his button upon the hostile breast. A rule is therefore made that all primary attacks must be made with a straight arm. The result is a mass of rules that the French seem to get on well without. At present a bout is awarded for the majority of touches, with one point allowed for especially good style. So long as this disparity be-tween touches and form remains, just so long will tournament fencing with the foil be bad, for the judges must give a touch even if made by chance or at the end of a "mixup" in which nothing especially outrageous has been done. In other words, many touches that have no real fencing value are counted, while style plays a miserable role.

As a matter of pure fencing no touch that is not made quite correctly should be counted. For example: A. lunges, B. parries and ripostes without touching, both are out of distance ( too near), both remise and finally one point gets on to a breast without any rule being flagrantly violated. The point must be counted, but the phase of arms was not fencing; it was a "cat-fight." At one time there was a system in vogue here which called for bouts between the contestants, during which no hits were noted, nor the bouts interrupted, except to change sides. At the end of the bout, which was apt to be much smoother and more correct than at present, because the men knew that style as well as touches counted, the judges voted for the victor.

This was the ideal system, but it failed because of prejudice on the part of the judges, resulting, it was alleged, in un-fair decisions. It would seem to be a regrettable fact that at present there are not enough judges to be found in whose fairness and competence complete reliance can be placed.

Passing to the epee, it must be said that this interesting weapon is gradually coming into its own. The Americans proceed rightly in not neglecting the foil in its favor. The epeeist who takes no foil lessons is very foolish. On the other hand, though some dispute this, a measure of epee work is good for foil-fencing, for it calls for a very exact defense, while on the contrary much slovenly work is done in foil-play, particularly on the attack, because in the event of failure there is no penalty attached.

In epee, however, a sloppy attack that fails nearly always leads to immediate disaster. For example: the foil man lunges out, misses or hits foul and unless his adversary is able to riposte accurately in the case of a miss there is no penalty. In epee, if a mix-up of the kind occurred, there would be a hit registered at once against the awkward attacker, and very likely one against each. The reader will remember that in epee one hit on any part of the person from crown to toe decides the bout and that if both men are hit simultaneously both are debited with a defeat. Therefore the first rule is: don't get hit, and the second: hit your enemy. For this reason the epee fencer must be well within himself with every movement circumspect and clean-cut, an excellent example for the foil-man.

As was said above, foil-play should be considered as the display of correctness, of style, while the duelling-sword or epee is the direct descendant of the small-sword so far as hits are concerned. For this reason it has almost completely replaced the foil for competition work abroad. It is curious that while the epee was adopted here as a championship weapon at least ten years before Newton-Robinson introduced it to the British fencing world in 1900, the British have gone much farther with it than we, the French, Belgians and imitating Dutch in its almost exclusive use in competition.

It is hardly fair to dismiss the Intercollegiate Association without a more extended account of its doings. Founded in 1894 through the efforts of certain influential members of the A. F. L. A., it was confined for two years to Harvard and Columbia, the Navy (Annapolis) joining in 1896, Cornell in 1898, Yale in 1900, West Point and Pennsylvania in 1902 and Princeton in 1906. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was for a few years a member but has since dropped out. For the first four years Harvard was the victor, principally owing to the fine fencing of such men as Thacher, Hoffman, Parker and de Diaz. Beginning with 1902 the two United States institutions, Annapolis and West Point, have won each year until 1911, when Cornell for the first time broke the monopoly of the cadets and middies.

Of these ten victories six fell to West Point and four to Annapolis. There has been some grumbling on the part of the non-military colleges at the success of their service rivals, it being alleged that the latter had a great advantage in the rule which makes fencing compulsory with them—a part of their regular curriculum. For this reason Cornell's success last year may have a salutary effect.

Fencing in American colleges is not confined to the institutions that are members of the Intercollegiate. Some of the New England colleges, especially Amherst, indulge in the pastime and in the Middle West, notably near Chicago, many colleges have taken it up seriously. As yet only the foil is recognized by college men, but this is a mistake, as I shall try to show in a second paper.

There is little reciprocity in fencing between Canada and the United States, the Canadians preferring as in trade to affiliate with the mother-country, which will retard their development, as they should properly form a part of the A. F. L. A. and enter the American championships. At present the only meetings of Canadian and American fencers have been at assaults arranged by Professor Nobbs, of McGill University, Montreal. That city, Toronto and Ottawa, may be considered the fencing centers of the Dominion, at least in the East. M. de Bay, of Montreal, is the present foil champion. The epee and sabre are being taken up more and more. Of masters in Canada we may make mention of A. Drouet, late of the French army; Rickard West of London ; Raimondi, a good Italian master, and Williams of Toronto.

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Loaned for digitization by Benjamin Bowles

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Digitized by Benjamin Bowles ; Cataloged by Benjamin Bowles



Edward Breck, “Fencing In America,” Fencing Arms & Artifacts, accessed February 22, 2024, https://fencingexhibit.com/items/show/189.

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